Sir Des Champs can confirm superiority over Flemenstar
THE smallest field on tomorrow's otherwise busy Punchestown spread promises to serve up an absolutely compelling edition of the John Durkan Memorial Chase.
Last year's first and second, Flemenstar and Sir Des Champs, will add another chapter to their absorbing rivalry in the two-and-a-half-mile Grade One.
Robbie Hennessy's 2011 hero Rubi Light, third in 2012, is back for his third stab at the €80,000 purse, with Sir Des Champs' stablemate Arvika Ligeonniere completing the select line-up.
Intriguingly, Ruby Walsh's Willie Mullins-trained mount shaded favouritism last night after persistent support.
A triple Grade One winner in testing ground as a novice, the eight-year-old Arvika Ligeonniere did everything right when landing the Clonmel Oil Chase in typically authoritative style on his reappearance.
With the fourth Foildubh beating Rubi Ball over hurdles since, the form has a solid look to it, but whether that will be enough to topple both of the big guns on the forecast good ground is another thing altogether.
Up to this time last year, Flemenstar was an absolute force of nature over fences. However, he wasn't his usual fluent self on his debut for Tony Martin at Navan.
Granted, he won the Fortria with a bit to spare, but of more concern than his deliberate fencing was that he never really pulled away.
Having had a lung infection before undergoing surgery to correct his breathing in the summer, it may be that he simply isn't the horse of old, and it's also significant that he had two very hard races in defeat when his stamina was stretched over three miles at Leopardstown last term.
All told, Sir Des Champs appeals as nap material to avenge last year's comprehensive heavy ground defeat. The champion trainer has said that he believes his gallant Cheltenham Gold Cup runner-up is fitter for his seasonal bow this time and the way that the honest seven-year-old progressed after his reversal a year ago was impressive.
He might have won the Lexus but for two bad mistakes and duly made amends under Davy Russell with a famous Hennessy Gold Cup success.
In the absence of his exquisite regular rider at Cheltenham, he lost little in defeat to Bobs Worth, before then slamming Long Run and First Lieutenant in testing ground at Punchestown.
Whether Sir Des Champs ultimately has the scope to progress sufficiently to go one better in March is hard to say.
Right now, though, he is surely the single most accomplished chaser in the country, so he is trusted to confirm his superiority on the sort of decent surface that he relishes but rarely gets to race on.
The reigning champion jockey can carry the same Gigginstown House Stud silks to victory aboard the Dessie Hughes-trained Bright New Dawn in the Setanta Sports Beginners' Chase. Henry de Bromhead's Sizing Gold is another fine prospect in this, but the hugely promising Bright New Dawn's hurdle form is probably marginally superior.
A handsome, strapping six-year-old son of Presenting, he finished third to Jezki and second to Champagne Fever in his two Grade One starts at Leopardstown last term.
If, as expected, Bright New Dawn proves more suited to fences, then this could be the first step on the road to the top.
There is another cracking card at Russell's home venue in Cork, with his fellow Rebel and former champion Paul Townend expected to secure a brace for Mullins aboard the classy pair Rathvinden and Twinlight.